Former detention centre contractor fails in bid to dismiss $18m lawsuit
Three detainees at Villawood Detention Centre during a rooftop protest in 2012. Photo: Wolter Peeters
A former immigration detention centre operator being sued by the federal government for more than $18 million has failed in its bid to have the case dismissed.
The Commonwealth is seeking damages from Australasian Correctional Services over centres damaged around Australia by rioting asylum seekers more than 10 years ago.
ACS will claim as part of its defence that it was the government's "negligent" treatment of the detainees that sparked the 11 separate riots at the Woomera, Curtin, Christmas Island, Port Hedland, Baxter and Villawood detention centres between August 2000 and December 2002.
But ACS's court application claimed that the Commonwealth's tardy pursuit of the case had left it impossible for ACS to get a fair trial, more than 10 years after the last riot.
ACS told Justice Hilary Penfold in a series of hearings in 2012 that damage reports and witness statements that were up to 12 years old would be problematic and that the memories of some witnesses might be faulty, while others would be dead.
The detention contactor, jointly owned by Australian company Thiess Constructions and US-owned Wackenhut Corrections Corporation, told the court that the government was to blame for the slow progress of the case and asked for it to be thrown out.
But in her decision published on Monday, the judge found both the prisons company and the Commonwealth were to blame for the "painfully slow" progress of the litigation.
"It is fair to say that until recently, neither party has shown any particular enthusiasm for progressing this matter," Justice Penfold wrote.
"I was not convinced that ACS would suffer prejudice in the conduct of its defence as a result of the slow progress of this matter in the last six years, or that the trial of the matter would be unfair.
"ACS's apparent failure to make any genuine preparations for trial further weakened its claim to be prejudiced by delay."
ACS ran the centres on behalf of the then Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs between 1998 and 2002 but the company's involvement ceased in December 2002, less than five years into a 10-year agreement with the department.
Several months later, the Federal government claimed ACS had been billing it for staff it had not employed and referred the allegations to federal police although no action was taken.
A subsidiary of ACS, Australasian Correctional Management, also ran jails and remand centres in three Australian states.
According to the Commonwealth's claim, more than half the damages bill was incurred during four separate outbreaks of violence at the now closed Woomera detention centre in South Australia. One incident resulted in damage that cost $5.8 million to repair.
The total Woomera bill was about $9.6 million after a number of buildings and perimeter fences were destroyed.
Damages bills of about $2.5 million each were incurred at Christmas Island, Port Hedland and Baxter during the same two-year period.
During a riot at Port Hedland in 2001, 22 detainees were arrested in a raid by 170 police and security guards.
After a series of riots in late 2002, shortly before ACS ceased its involvement, 36 detainees were transferred to state prisons or police lock-ups.
The Commonwealth told ACS in June 2004 that it regarded it as legally liable for the damage caused by detainees.
The government asserts that ACS agreed to promptly repair all damage and to maintain detention centres in the condition they were at the beginning of the agreement.
In addition to damages of $17,948,902 the Commonwealth is seeking interest payments dating back to the date of the riots, plus legal costs.
The case will return to court for more directions next month.